Read a Little Bad Writing, Too
A lot of genealogists read the good stuff, scholarly journals such as the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. They are both great publications, and you’ll see many examples of well-written case studies and compiled genealogies. In them you will see example after example of precise, efficient citations. The articles have undergone multiple levels of review that have cleaned up mistakes and filled in gaps in research.
I know from personal experience that an article I submitted to “The Q” had holes in my research, things I hadn’t addressed. And my first round of citations was something I am currently less than proud of. But the editors saw potential and worked with me to fix the text and citations so they would meet the publications standard, and hopefully be an example to other genealogists.
When you read an article in The Q, you’ll look at the citations to see what kind of resources the author consulted. You might even go look at some of those specific references yourself, and in so doing perhaps learn about a valuable resource you haven’t thought about using in your own research. Those are good lessons.
But what you won’t see between the covers of those hallowed periodicals are the crappy citations that don’t really document what they say they do. There’s plenty of sloppy citations out there. You probably have some in your own writing. I know I do. I’m sure your friends do, too.
Somebody might write a citation to the gravestone of Charles Kircher on his FindAGrave memorial in Marin County, California and say that he was born 25 April 1879. The gravestone does not have the birthdate. It has a year, but not the actual date. (And until sometime after his wife died in 1968, Charles’ stone didn’t even have the years of his life span on the stone!) So, no, that stone does not tell you he was born 25 April 1879. The memorial does, but what made the memorial poster make the leap from the simple 1879 that the stone says to a specific date? So that’s something you ought to dig a little more into if you want to be thorough. Somebody knew (or thought they knew) something about the actual date. You’ve got a clue now – can you prove it?
Another example – 1870 census. You know that man is your great-great grandfather, and that woman is his wife, and those three children are all their sons and daughters. Because you know the family. So you say that Fred and Wilma’s children were A, B, and C, and you cite as your source the 1870 census. But the 1870 census does not state relationships. Those people could be five random strangers who share similar names to your family. You need think about and understand what that record says, and what it doesn’t say. And you need to be precise in writing your text and your citations so you reflect that analysis and understanding.
These examples of imprecision in writing are likely to be dealt with before they hit the pages of the lofty journals we read. But imprecision is present in all our writing. If you’re willing to pass your pages on to a trusted friend for review, and return the favor by reviewing theirs, you’ll begin to see how to improve your precision in your writing and your citations. They’ll call you on your mistakes, you’ll call them on theirs, and the next time around you’ll think before you make those same imprecise assertions.
Read a little bad writing. It’ll make you a better genealogist!
 Find A Grave, (http://findagrave.com : accessed 9 February 2020), memorial 59231349, Charles Arthur Kircher (1879-1952), and digital image of Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery (San Rafael, Marin, California, Charles Kircher gravestone; memorial contributed by Carl Bennett 26 September 2010 and gravestone photo contributed by “FosterFamilyTree, date unknown.
 Charles and Agnes are my paternal grandparents. My dad told me that, even though Charlie and Agnes used to enjoy taking picnics to random cemeteries and had a grand old time mentally recreating the lives represented by the names and dates etched in those granite markers, when Charlie died, Agnes had nothing but his name put on his gravestone. Their daughter Mary waited patiently for another 14 years, and when Agnes died in 1968, Mary had Agnes’ name and years put on her stone, and amended Charlie’s to get his years, too.
Mary Kircher Roddy is a genealogist, writer and lecturer, always looking for the story. Her blog is a combination of the stories she has found and the tools she used to find them.